Putting A Face To Mexican Homicides

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Self-taught attorney Marcos Armendariz i i

hide captionSelf-taught attorney Marcos Armendariz outside the home office in Agua Prieta, Mexico, where he was shot.

Courtesy of the Armendariz Family
Self-taught attorney Marcos Armendariz

Self-taught attorney Marcos Armendariz outside the home office in Agua Prieta, Mexico, where he was shot.

Courtesy of the Armendariz Family

Violence in Mexico has reached a murderous crescendo. Last year, the country recorded more than 15,000 homicides. Marcos Armendariz, a self-taught legal advocate, was one of those numbers. This is his story.

Marcos Armendariz was murdered the night of Oct. 23; he was shot in his small law office in the town of Agua Prieta, a few miles from the U.S.

"There were four bullets. Two entered his body," says his daughter, Paty, through an interpreter.

Paty says she found his body slumped over the desk. One bullet pulverized his heart. One that missed is still lodged in the wall. An investigator says there are suspects in the case, but he's tight-lipped on the details.

Colleagues and family believe that Armendariz stoked his killer's rage in Agua Prieta's civil courthouse. Armendariz never spent a day in law school, but the 56-year-old with a slight paunch and a bushy mustache built his reputation here. When his clients signed over power of attorney, Armendariz could argue their case before a judge.

Former client Alice Valenzuela, an American, remembers him.

"He was short, sturdy and pugnacious, and he gave no quarter," Valenzuela says.

Armendariz once helped Valenzuela keep a recycling business afloat after a local politician tried to shut down the operation. It's the type of conflict Armendariz savored. He never took a drug case. Instead, Valenzuela says he preferred to challenge public officials and deadbeat dads.

"To me, he would have been just a minor annoyance in the big picture, but obviously he was enough of an annoyance to make people feel very threatened," Valenzuela says.

The list of potential enemies piles up quickly. One local attorney says Armendariz was disliked throughout the community. That attorney was afraid to speak on tape or give his name because he says in this violent country, it's unwise for people to stick their necks out in a case like this. Off tape, though, he says Armendariz was brash, and he craved the adrenaline of challenging powerful people. Armendariz did joust regularly with local officials over the years. He also irked other attorneys who had spent years in law school.

Attorney Carlos Freydig, who was willing to speak publicly, says other lawyers didn't consider him a colleague.

They criticized him, Freydig says. There was jealously and sometimes anger, because even without a degree, Armendariz was good at his job, he says. Armendariz sometimes cherry-picked rich clients from other attorneys, and collected a premium doing it.

How often did he lose a case?

"Casi no," Freydig says. Almost never.

For the most part, Armendariz did this work for free. His home is furnished with armchairs, stoves and broken trucks that his poorest clients offered as modest payment.

Client Feliciano Alvarez says his family never saw a bill after Armendariz waged a successful five-year battle on their behalf. It was against a wealthy man who had stolen their family farm.

Alvarez says the poor are in mourning and wondering if they'll ever find another advocate.

The answer to that question may rest in the hands of Paty Armendariz. In her father's office, she muscles open a filing cabinet. In it, there are about 100 files, each wrapped in a bright yellow folder. Despite her own lack of formal training, Paty says she wants to carry on her father's dream of opening a free law clinic dedicated to the city's underserved. She knows that means the threat of danger hasn't gone away. Somewhere in this town, her father's killer is hiding.

"I am angry," Paty says. "I am very angry."

So why did he take the risks he did?

"My father would have been unhappy if his walk in life had not left any footprints," she says.

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